Submitted by William Elder.
Sometime, someplace, by some arcane process— some progenitor of ours recognized he or she was unique, a singular human being. As cartoons like to portray it, a lightbulb went on above a head. That switch cannot be pinpointed exactly in what we are collectively pleased to call the long sweep of human history, but very early on. The same can be said of each of us individually as we make our way down that well-tracked trail. Self-realization is such a monumental illumination that the glow from it has lit all that humans have done through the ensuing millenia down unto this sentient moment. We are able to see ourselves for who we are, each of us, if we bother to look, and have the courage and sympathy to judge ourselves as we judge the rest of our world.
Ego was born in that long ago switch flipping. No fanfare and drum roll, rather more like blinking awake after a long sleep, a coming into a new consciousness after monkey-millenia of animal darkness. One thing was certain though. Never could humans entirely shut our mind’s-eye again. We have to live with, cope, think through, what we have discovered, namely sentient life. Call it a curse or call it a challenge.
To say self-awareness in human history was HUGE is like saying that on-off switch was for the Sun itself. But sweeping back darkness as the key to discovering human intelligence was only the first step in our development. What to do with smarts, now that we discovered we had some, is what next puzzled our ancestors. Fires proved good things, burning our dinners over them was an improvement, but what else…
But questioning like that was precisely the point, for questioning prompted imagination itself. If not this, then what? Imagination is second only to the initial awakening of human intelligence itself as the most significant shaper of human thought and the goosing of human actions since we got wet and cold and wondered why.
Only one problem. Not all humans are equally endowed with imagination. To recognize ourselves as unique beings, living in a knowable world, coming to define it, survive it, was a vital advance for humankind; to be able to imagine our world as an entirely different place, to be able to create thoughts and images to describe that new world is a relatively rare talent among us. Our ancestors took our primitive ability to learn, paired it with adaptability, the ready ability to travel and embrace the new, and applied our nimble fingers to its problems, whatever, wherever they were. They imagined new answers that smoothed the rough rock around us, and handed it down to our progenitors as a cornerstone of human development. They decked-out themselves and their caves, then built houses, and joined them into cities— all because they imagined them first, then developed the skills to bring them about.
Language development is one of the shining stars of the human story. The ability to communicate with each other underpins our whole social structure.
Self awareness defined “I”. Then we noticed “Others” like us, and how alike we really are— meaning similar in needs and wants, relatively defenseless and tasty. We needed others to watch our backs, and occasionally to scratch them too. So we bonded together in families, tribes, and clans. The species was splintered by geography— rivers, mountains, deserts, seas— and by prevalent ethnology, racial identification, and ignorance of the wide world. Language brought us together and held us in pockets, plus customs, costumes, and sheer habit. A telling fact about all these various languages springing up around the globe is that one of the first things they did was to define themselves, to and for themselves. So very many linguistic groups defined themselves simply as “human beings” in their own tongues, which is, after all, who we are. Except, of course, when we deny it.
Our species, the best evidence tells us, came from Africa. We crawled out of the Olduvai Gorge to spread up and out, around the world, maturing and adapting, physically and mentally, as we went. We settled into worldwide communities and developed cultures there. When our systems of transportation and communication improved, we looked around the world and saw ourselves looking back. Some of us hated what they saw as Others— strange, ugly, foreign— and saw a selfish opportunity for conquest and subjugation of the Others. Some resisted this attitude, and fought against it. So we warred: we lost; we won; we starved; occasionally we fed; we rejected; we accepted. Throughout these generations we even learned a little, almost despite ourselves. We were so sure, then not so sure, all over again. In our world, foreignness makes mistrust easy. Ignorance trumps learning. Language at times actually abets separation. Skin color makes hatred downright easy, if you, the sole arbiter of your own attitude, allow it to.
I was lucky. I was taught early.
Mrs. Truitt, in my elementary school, used to say to me, with her most piercing stare: “William, remember— you are what you really are when you are by yourself!” I grew up remembering that wisdom burned into my character. It served me well until the day I thought abruptly for myself: “Yes, but what are you really when you are with other people?” I had to figure that out on my own. Mrs. Truitt was gone. I had to imagine not only what I thought of Me at my self-defined best, but what about Others who would think of having to put up with Me at my self-defined best? Soul-searching it used to be called. I came to the conclusion that Me seeing me through the eyes of others didn’t bother me a bit, thanks to Mrs T. I can look anyone in the eye and myself in a mirror. And wink. And mean it.
Heaven hold you, Mrs. T!
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.